Stimulus for Science

Stimulus for Science

As President Obama takes steps to "restore science to its rightful place," Washington insiders and Academy members weigh in on his challenges and priorities.

It's no exaggeration to say that applause rang out in the halls of science on January 20 when President Barack Obama pledged during his inaugural address to "restore science to its rightful place." "If you heard a faint cheer about 30 rows back when he said those words, that was me," says physicist and Congressman Rush Holt (D-NJ). Scientists in laboratories across the country were likewise delighted by the statement, as were New York Academy of Sciences staffers who gathered in a conference room to watch the new President sworn into office. President Obama's pledge was consistent with his appointments, announced a month earlier, of several distinguished career scientists, including two Nobel Laureates and three NYAS members, to the top government science posts. And in his first two months in office, he took several more steps toward upholding it.

In February, the President signed off on an unprecedented $24 billion in new funding for science and technology research and development, including more than $10 billion for the National Institutes of Health and $3 billion for the National Science Foundation, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Days later, in his first address to Congress, the President acknowledged the importance of science to an economic recovery, saying that the solutions to America's recession reside "in our laboratories and our universities."

In March, he made good on campaign promises to reverse the Bush administration's restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research by directing the NIH to develop new rules within four months. And when Congress, days later, confirmed Harvard physicist John Holdren as Presidential Science Adviser and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Obama had already assigned him the task of developing "a strategy for restoring scientific integrity to government decision making."

Forced conversation

Though it remains to be seen if the federal support for science will be sustained beyond the Administration's jobs-creation program, to many, the new President's announcements mark a refreshing departure from eight years of neglect and even rejection of sound science on critical issues by White House. Some scientists and science advocates see Obama's recent moves as their payoff for months of hard work aimed at bringing the country's science crisis to his attention before he took office, or while he was still on the campaign trail.

Shawn Otto, a Minnesota-based screenwriter with a bachelor's degree in physics and a passion for science policy, began during the November 2007 Hollywood writers' strike to advocate for discussion of the scientific issues among the contenders for the U.S. presidency. With the help of five other volunteers, Otto established ScienceDebate 2008 with a Web site and a petition calling for a presidential science policy debate. The movement gained momentum as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, National Academies, and Council on Competitiveness became ScienceDebate cosponsors and 38,000 scientists, engineers, and other concerned citizens, including the presidents of more than 100 universities, signed the petition.

Although no debate took place, ScienceDebate did succeed in getting the Obama and McCain campaigns to provide written answers to 14 science policy questions on topics including climate change, energy, science education, biosecurity, stem cells, genetics research, and U.S. competitiveness. Says Otto, "It's the first time we are aware that the endorsed candidates for president have laid out their science policies in advance of the election."

The Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists also urged the president to take up the cause of science. With input from thousands of scientists, current and former government science advisors, congressional aides, reporters, and public inter est organizations, in January the UCS submitted a set of detailed recommendations to President-elect Obama and Congress for restoring scientific integrity to federal policymaking. UCS senior scientist Francesca Grifo saw the Scientific Integrity Presidential Memorandum that Obama issued in March as "proof that the administration had heard the cry" of almost 15,000 scientists who had signed a statement denouncing the politicization of science.

Other groups including the National Academies and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars issued reports urging the new president to quickly appoint a nationally respected scientist to the position of Presidential Science Adviser. John Edward Porter, a former Republican congressman from Illinois and chair of the committee that wrote the National Academies' report, says, "The Bush administration largely ignored science and wouldn't provide ongoing funding increases even at the level of inflation. I believe [the new] president understands the importance of science." He and others are gratified by the early appointment of Holdren.

Science as jobs program

Observers are also pleased to see science being recognized as a crucial contributor to economic growth—in Obama's speeches and especially in the Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Columbia University Professor and NYAS President's Council member Eric Kandel led 49 Nobel Laureates and several other top American scientists in penning a January 9, 2009, letter to the then President-elect urging him to "consider an immediate increase in funding for scientific research" as part of the economic stimulus package. "Increased science funding is an ideal stimulus: it creates good jobs across the economy; there is large pent-up need so that money can be spent immediately; and it represents an investment in the infrastructure of scientific research and higher education that are vital to the future," Kandel and his colleagues wrote in the open letter published as an op-ed in the New York Daily News and the Financial Times in January.

The massive funding for science and technology included in the final bill is "an acknowledgement of the importance of science to economic health," says Kandel.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich says he is "very much in favor of a science-intensive approach to how we think about the future of the country." Over the next 25 years, he warns, "waves of new knowledge will affect our economy, the environment, health, national security." Although he considers the bulk of the $787 billion Recovery Act to be "a remarkable waste," Gingrich says he is pleased with how it treats science.

"Most scientists have been reluctant to present science as a jobs program because it cheapens it," says Congressman Holt. "But if you get an NIH or NSF grant, that money goes to hire $50,000-a-year lab techs and electricians who will wire the labs. Science funding does indeed make jobs." In a speech on the House floor in February, Holt urged colleagues to consider that for every $1 billion invested in science, 20,000 U.S. jobs are created.

Slow learners

Nevertheless, many politicians still don't buy into the importance of investing in science as economic stimulus. Congressman Ver non Ehlers (R-MI), an atomic physicist who sits on the House Science & Technology Committee, says, "I can't say that the mood toward science in Congress has changed because of the current recession. Very few individuals relate science with stimulus."

Holt concurs. At the recent annual meeting of the AAAS in Chicago he told an audience, "Most members of Congress avoid science at all costs."

"It's really amazing," says Kandel. "The whole Internet era has exploded and every aspect of industry came out of a few technical institutes throughout the country, yet science has been seen as the underpinning of the intellectual enterprise but not the economic enterprise."

Truth be told, even Obama and his team of economic advisors had to be coached to adopt their science-friendly point of view. ScienceDebate CEO Otto says science was simply not on either Obama or McCain's campaign agenda before the grass roots organization gained critical mass. "I think Obama came to understand through our efforts and the efforts of others during the campaign how passionately people felt that science had been abandoned by the previous administration and substituted with ideology."

Still, Holt told The New York Times in January that the President's economic advisors "don't have a deep appreciation of the role of research and development as a short-term, mid-term, and long-term economic engine." Holt suggested that the billions contained in the stimulus package for energy research are not enough.

Science is stimulated

For now, the money is beginning to flow back into the country's labs. Kandel says the effect of the stimulus bill has been immediate: "I'm speaking to a project officer now to get about $100,000. Everybody and his uncle is doing this, and within four to eight weeks I will be able to create some jobs."

From agriculture, energy, and IT to oceans, medicine, and space, research of all kinds will indeed benefit from the Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The bill contains atleast $24 billion for science and technology research and development.

NSF Director Arden Bement announced in March that his organization is working on a plan for quickly disbursing the $3 billion it was awarded. Bement said NSF would award the major ity of the $2 billion available for "Research and Related Activities" before September 30 to proposals that were already under review or had been declined since October 2008.

The NIH, awarded more than $10 billion to be allocated by September 2010, will direct $1 billion to institutions seeking to construct, renovate, or repair biomedical or behavioral research facilities; about $100 million to Biomedical Research Core Centers for multidisciplinary research; and another $200 million for "Research and Research Infrastructure Grand Opportunities." Acting Director Raynard Kingston told The New York Times in February that the agency would also quickly act to fund some of the 14,000 applications with scientific merit that have been turned down lately due to insufficient funds.

The legislation also includes $1 billion in funding for NASA, of which $400 million will go for science missions; more than $800 million for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; $1.6 billion for physical sciences research funded through the Department of Energy Office of Science; and another $400 million for the Advanced Research Project Agency—Energy to support high-risk, high-payoff research into energy sources and energy efficiency in collaboration with private industry and universities. Energy Secretary and Academy member Steven Chu announced that nearly $1.2 billion would go "for major construction, laboratory infrastructure, and research eff orts sponsored across the nation by the DOE office of Science."

Restoring to rightful place

Despite the bounty, scientists and supporters warn that a stimulus package and a presidential memo alone won't restore science to its "rightful place." Many worry that the jobs-creation funding, much of which must be distributed within two years, will not be sustained. "You can't support science for two years," says Kandel. "Science goes on in perpetuity. To solve problems of health and environment, science has to be supported long-term. Obama is aware of this, but he has made no statement about how long [this level of funding] will last." "I'm not being critical of the stimulus package, but it's not clear that things in it will ever see another dime," says Lewis Shepherd, chief technology officer of the Microsoft Institute for Advanced Technology in Governments and a former senior technology officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency. "It's not as easy as telling Los Alamos National Laboratory, 'we're going to give you a 60 percent budget increase for one year only.' That's just not the way science works."

Congressman Bart Gordon (D-TN), chair of the House Committee on Science & Technology, says it's legitimate to be concerned that the boost for science will be a flash in the pan. "With difficult economic times you could see how that could happen," says Gordon. "But when the President called me before his swearing in he said he was a science guy, and when Speaker Pelosi talks to any group about our future and our competitive ness she says there are four things we have to do and that's 'science, science, science, and science'."

Bring back the OTA

One way some are suggesting that Congress can be kept apprised of the importance of science funding would be to re-establish the Office of Technology Assessment, the congressional scientific advisory body that was shut down by the 1995 "Contract with America." With a $22 million annual budget and a staff of 143, the office was known for generating high-level reports on bleeding-edge science and technology issues. Shepherd says, "There's been a gaping void for 15 years since OTA was disestablished. I suspect, as others do, that much of the last decade's decline in R&D and scientific programs have occurred at a time when Con gress disarmed itself from getting advice."

Speaking at the AAAS meeting, Holt said, "When OTA was disbanded, Congress gave itself a lobotomy. Our national policies have suffered ever since. The issues have grown more complex, but our tools to evaluate and understand them have not." Holt intends to submit a formal request for funding and to argue the case for reopening the OTA before the full Appropriations Committee in May.

Pay attention to P-CAST

How else to ensure that scientists and scientific research get the respect they need from government to contribute to a renewed economy of innovation? The President should consult frequently with Presidential Science Adviser Holdren and the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (P-CAST), say many observers.

Gingrich notes that "presidential advisers matter as much as presidents listen to them." P-CAST has been truly influential only three times in history, he says: "When it was created under Eisenhower, when it was a part of the Apollo program under Kennedy, and when the science adviser was indispensable under Reagan in preparing a Strategic Defense Initiative."

But most agree that the scientists Obama selected to co chair P-CAST—Nobel Laureate and former NIH director Harold Varmus and Broad Institute Director Eric Lander (both NYAS members)—are not the types to go unheard. Further, Porter says he is optimistic that Holdren will not be "ignored" the way he says President Bush's science adviser John Marburger was. "I hope that Holdren is put at the table for cabinet meetings when ever a matter involving science comes up, that the president will go to him regularly for science advice."

There's an urgency for more scientists to involve themselves in policymaking, he says. "In the US, scientists have been aloof from the political process. We need them in policymaking positions where they're part of the decision-making process."

Porter suggests that scientists call up the campaign of their favorite candidate and ask to join their science advisory committee. "Most of them will say, 'We don't have one,'" says Porter. "So, say, 'OK, I will start one for you!' Campaigns aren't in the business of refusing people who want to work for them. We have scientists all across the country who could step up."

Rush Holt says this is the perfect climate for scientists to get involved. "The essence of science is to ask questions so they can be answered empirically and verifiably, always with the understand ing that you may be proven wrong," he says. "That's an essential underpinning of science. Obama seems to operate that way."

Otto, the ScienceDebate CEO, is cautiously optimistic. "We don't think with one election the world has changed. In order for the president to get some of his aggressive initiatives through, he's going to need the support of Congress and they of the American people. So this discussion of science's role in America is going to have to be ongoing."